However, conservationists were disappointed by the July announcement by President William Ruto, who had portrayed himself as an environmental champion and made the planting of 15 billion trees the centerpiece of his climate change agenda.
The government defended the lifting of the prohibition by asserting that only mature trees in state-run plantations would be cut down, while Kenya’s most biodiverse and carbon-dense natural forests would remain untouched.
Ruto was just weeks away from convening an international climate conference in Nairobi, and his explanation did little to dispel hypocrisy allegations.
“Kenya has been a distinct leader in this area by investing in green growth and increasing forest cover. Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition, stated that the country is currently removing its forests while also hosting negotiations on climate change.
Ruto comes to the rescue
Ruto, who was vice president when the prohibition was enacted in 2018, deemed it “foolishness” to allow trees to rot while businesses imported timber.
At a time when anti-government protesters are demonstrating against rising prices, the temptation to aid a sector that employs 50,000 people directly and 300,000 indirectly would have been strong.
The July announcement by President William Ruto disappointed conservationists.
In Molo, a town in the highlands northwest of Nairobi, sawmill owner Bernard Gitau stated that Ruto had “come to the rescue” after he was compelled to lay off employees and reduce production due to the ban.
His factory is still only partially operational, with inactive machinery covered in sawdust.
However, a skeleton crew of fifty has been sanding doors and planing wood while he awaits the return of business.
“Some of them came and were praying in front of my gate, saying that we thank God that this sawmill has been resurrected,” said Gitau, who is also the chairman of the Timber Manufacturers Association of Kenya, an industry group.
This city’s economy is going to progress.
In Molo, a town in the highlands northwest of Nairobi, sawmill proprietor Bernard Gitau stated that Ruto had “saved the day.”
Kenya’s forests were being destroyed at a rate of 5,000 hectares per year, depleting the drought-prone nation’s water supply and contributing to global warming when the ban was enacted.
Since the ban went into effect, forests have steadily begun to recover, but without it, it is unclear how Ruto can fulfill his pledge to more than double the nation’s tree cover by 2032.
“Today you’re discussing planting, and tomorrow you’ll discuss harvesting. It does not tally up,” stated Godfrey Kamau, chairman of the Thogoto Forest Family, a conservation group that protects 53 hectares of native forest outside of Nairobi.
Environmentalists were granted a temporary reprieve on August 1, when a court temporarily prohibited the government from issuing logging licenses until a legal challenge is considered in its entirety.
The move has also reignited scrutiny of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the government agency responsible for enforcing the scheme and issuing forestry permits.
KFS stated that the process would be transparent, and removed areas would be replanted.
In 2018, a government task force accused the KFS of “rampant corruption” as well as “wanton destruction” and “plunder and pillaging” of forests. However, according to critics, the KFS has not implemented sufficient reforms.
Gitau, the proprietor of a sawmill, stated that concerns over the logging of native forests were misplaced.
He stated that the timber industry was only interested in fast-growing trees that were introduced during British colonial rule, such as pine and eucalyptus, and not native species found in protected forests.
The prohibition was implemented at a time when 5,000 hectares of Kenya’s forests were being cleared annually.
However, Environment Minister Soipan Tuya reported that in the nearby Mau Forest, a vast mountain ecosystem and vital water source, trees were illegally cut down just days after the moratorium was lifted.
As part of a “ruthless” campaign to eradicate illegal logging, she dispatched additional KFS rangers to Mau and other threatened areas.
“Those who believe our forests are susceptible to encroachment can forget it,” she said.
Kamau, whose organization works with locals to preserve Thogoto Forest, stated that the government’s contradictory messages undermine efforts to discourage logging.
“The president stood and announced that forestry would be permitted… “Common wananchi (people) will decide it’s time to begin cutting down trees,” he told AFP in Thogoto, which is surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of plantation forest.
He lamented the emphasis on replanting and harvesting timber instead of native trees that attract fauna, store carbon, and sustain nature for future generations.